Armenia – Historic Western Armenia – Javaghk – Artsakh

September – October 2012

September 12, 2012, 7:55 p.m., Air France flight from Paris landed at Yerevan’s Zevartnotz Airport. My wife, Shoushan and I, accompanied by Hagop and Vicky Seropian, close friends and advocates of the “Visit Armenia, It Is Beautiful” project were on this flight. Upon completing immigration formalities we were met by a large number of friends who had come to the airport, in spite of us keeping our arrival very low key.

Due to health reason I had not been in Armenia since 2010, although Shoushan had spent over five weeks in 2010 visiting sites, inspecting hotels, restaurants and other touristic related establishments. Additionally, Hagop Seropian represented us in Armenia during his visit in 2011, thus keeping up our yearly visit commitment alive.

This time during our visit to Armenia we had planned to take a side trip to Historic Western Armenia. I had made reservations for the four of us with NV Narekavank Tours whose managing director Armen and I had met several years ago during his sales/marketing visit to the USA.

Early morning of September 17, 2012, our 15 seater Mercedes bus left Yerevan toward the Armenian-Georgian border, passing Gyumri and several Armenian villages. Crossing the border was very easy and fast. Both Armenian and Georgian boarder officials and guards were very cordial, welcoming and friendly. We drove through Javakhk Region passed the town of Akhalkalak; we had a short stop at Khertvisi Fortress towering over Parvana and Kura Rivers. In Akhaltskhe we had an authentic Georgian lunch including (khachapouri –a variation of cheese pizza).

The Georgian-Turkish border was about a 45 minute drive; here too the visa/passport officials and formality was very fast and cordial. Then we drove through beautiful mountains and forests and arrived to the town of Ardahan. We visited its old fortress that belonged to the Pakradouni Royal Family. In the 16th Century it was invaded by the Ottomans and later by the Russians. We continued on to Kars, where we saw the medieval stone bridge and the Church of Apostles (10th Century), 

the Castle and the Hammams (Bath). We stayed overnight in Sari Ghamish at a resort hotel 50kms from Kars.

The second day was one of the highlights of our trip. Visiting Ani, the glorious capital of the Armenian Kingdom in the 9-11th Centuries, and known as “the city of one thousand and one churches”, was located on the Great Silk Road and was the largest trade, religious and cultural center on the Europe and Asia crossroad.

We experienced the power of hundreds of medieval towers, grand Cathedrals, palaces, mosques, baths etc; most are in ruins yet some partially remain standing.

later we drove through Igdir and had a stop to take pictures of Mount Ararat from its western side. 

We had lunch at an apple orchard setting right by Akhourian River, a few miles across from Pakaran Village in Armenia. Following lunch we drove to Bayazit, where we saw the Daoink Fortress and explored the magnificent 18th Century palace of Is’hak Pasha, a complex where Persian, Ottoman and Armenian architecture is intertwined in mosques, courtyards and harem rooms.

We saw Mount Tonrag and its volcanic lavas, drove through Apougha prairies, passed the town of Chaltran and arrived to the beautiful waterfalls of Muradiye (Pergri Chervej). After dinner we drove to Van to our hotel.

Our third day was a visit to the city of Van, starting with its Urartian Dushba Fortress (9th Century BC) where we saw the Menua Tomb. There we met several groups of Armenian tourists from Canada and Eastern USA. We then drove to Varakavank Monastery with its seven Churches, most in ruins, despite which a local family keeps the grounds clean in an effort to try to attract tourists to visit. There are several homes right on the grounds of the churches as well as a Mosque. After a short stop at the legendary Mher’s Rock carved door, we continued south driving by the turquoise waters of Lake Van, followed by a 20 minute boat ride to Akhtamar Island.

The unique Holy Cross Cathedral (10th Century) is an exceptional monument featuring Armenian architecture; all covered with marvelous Biblical relieves outside and frescoes inside. Once a year in September, a Sunday Liturgy is held and the Church becomes an operating Armenian Church. The rest of the year the Cathedral is used as a museum where all types of tourists and pilgrims visit. Lunch was Lake Van’s famous “Darekh/incikefal” fish.

On the fourth day we left Van and drove by the shores of Lake Van.

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Our guide new of a secluded location where several of our group participants swam and others dipped their feet in the crystal clear and creamy waters of the Lake. We had a picnic lunch after which we drove to Mount Nemrut, a volcano site. Up the serpentine drive we reached the peak and enjoyed breathtaking views of Lake Van on one side and the Crater Lake on the other. There we saw a large group of European hikers who were visiting the historic Armenian sites. We drove down to the town of Bitlis, nestled in a gorge in the Taurus Mountains, saw its fortress and a short visit to the town, then entered Mush Valley and arrived to our hotel in Mush.

On day five we hiked up the hill to visit ruins of the legendary Apostles Monastery (4th Century). Later we drove to visit the remnants of “Msho Su;tan Sourp Garabed” St. John Cathedral.

 

once the most important center of the Armenian Churches; it remains as ruins inside a Kurdish village. We continued to the medieval Murad Bridge on the eastern Euphrates River. This is also called Souloukh Bridge where Armenian Hero Kevork Chavoush was martyred. We then returned to Mush Old Town and saw several ruins of Armenian Churches and went up the hill for a panoramic view of Mush. Day five had a special meaning to our group and Armenians all around the world. It was actually September 21, Independence day of Armenia. Everyone in the group wanted to have a drink to toast and celebrate the occasion. We finally were able to find a store where we bought a bottle of wine, which we equally divided into 14 disposable cups. (The restaurant did not allow us to use their glasses for wine consumption).

We left Mush on day six passing over Bingol and Palandoken Mountain Ranges, passing the Western Euphrates and drove to the monastery of Aparank. We saw St. John’s Church (17th Century) as well as St. David Chapel. Of the three tallest (over six meters) carved cross-stones, known as Khatchkars, two remain standing.

We had a picnic style lunch and enjoyed the crisp weather of the mountains. Next stop was Erzeroum and visiting the Byzantine Fortress, where we saw the renowned medieval medreses (theology schools) of Yakutiye and Chifte Minare. Later in the afternoon we passed by the old Shepherd’s Bridge and onto Sari Ghamish, our hotel.

Our last day was a drive from Sari Gahmish through Kars to the Turkish-Georgia-Armenia borders, which took almost ten hours, including border crossings, a lunch stop in Akhaltskhe and several rest stops.

Queen Tamara (Akhaltskhe) and Khertvisi Fortress.

This was a very educational and enjoyable trip as our small group of twelve passengers, a driver and the guide became so close, that in addition to enjoying the sites, we all enjoyed each others company too.

Back in Yerevan, September 24, we visited Yerevan Zoo and had a meeting with Ms. Barbara Siebert, Program Director of FPWC (Preservation of Wild Life and Cultural Assets).

We discussed the efforts of my grand daughter, Savannah, and what she is doing to promote animal adoption, especially at Yerevan Zoo, using her unique web site www.yerezoo.org .

The next day we stayed in Yerevan and took some interesting photos of the different statues that are newly erected almost everywhere in the city.

Although we have been in this area several times, we wanted to visit Goshavank again where we visited with Zarouhi (the ground keeper and guide of so many years). She told us that through donations from Diaspora Armenians, they are able to upkeep the monastery, Gosh’s home and related sites. She especially praised and was very thankful to the lawyers from the USA (members of the Armenian Bar Association) who had visited Goshavank a few years ago and made generous donations.

We then drove to Barz Lidge, which is the seventh largest lake in Armenia, located about nine kms from the main highway near Dilijan. The road is narrow and windy through dense forests and the lake was green. One would think that the water was not clean; however a closer look revealed that it is the reflection of the green forest which makes the lake look green. We returned to Dilijan and had our favorite smelt fish at Kedap Restaurant.

On September 27, we visited the office of Huyr Service at the lobby of Ani Hotel,to reconfirm our bus trip to Artsakh. As always, the agents were very courteous and knowledgeable and were able to answer all the questions we had.

There we saw friends from Los Angeles, Mr. and Mrs. Yeprem and Varsenig Baghboudarian,

Yeprem, “Mher”, Varsenig, Shoushan

who were in Armenia to bring yearly donations to “Nor Hadjin” Village’s school on behalf of the “Hadjin Compatriot Union”. They too had booked the same tour to Artsakh. The next several days we spent in Yerevan walking around the local streets, visiting Sayat Nova St., Toumanian Street, Northern Avenue, Apovian Boulevard, Hrabarag etc… One evening we enjoyed a live one man show by Nareg Tourian:”C’est la Vie.” We had pizza and ice cream several times at one of our favorite cafes, Marco Polo on Apovian Blvd. and enjoyed people watching. We also made sure to drive to Aramous Village near the City of Apovian for a wonderful Fish dinner and a fun evening with friends.

REUNIONS IN ARMENIA:

Armenia has become a popular place for all kinds of reunions. This year we encountered several different groups of people in Armenia visiting with members of their families or schools from other parts of the world.

*At our hotel, we met a family of four from Marseilles, France (husband, wife and two young children). They united with the wife’s parents and sister who had come from Beirut, Lebanon to Armenia for the reunion. The family from France had been to Armenia once before and had fallen in love with the Motherland, while the family members from Lebanon had never visited Armenia. It was a perfect and memorable 2 week reunion. Not only did they enjoy each other, the wife’s parents and sister had the opportunity to visit Armenia. Likely Armenia will be the place for their future family reunions.

*Another family, staying at our hotel, was a couple from Rostov, Russia that had come to Yerevan to join relatives who were visiting from the United States, as well as other family members residing in Armenia.

*The World Reunion of Armenian Schools of Egypt www.armenegypt.com had a reunion for the first time in Armenia. Over 379 alumni and their spouses from different countries spent fun-filled days visiting beautiful sights in Armenia as well as in Artsakh. I knew several families from the Los Angeles area who kept me posted with their tours/adventures and thoughts. Many of these individuals were first timers to Armenia. I am told it was a successful school reunion. Many will return and bring their families to experience and enjoy the beauty of the country and the special feelings/emotions Armenia seems to kindle in its children.

INTERESTING ENCOUNTERS:

I was happy to meet Vic Darchinyan “The Raging Bull”. http://www.vicdarchinyan.com/ He lives in Sydney and was visiting friends and family in Armenia as well as getting ready for his next boxing tournament on November 1st in Las Vegas. We met several times, at our hotel, and talked about his successes and goals. He is an idol among sport fans (young and old) in Armenia. Vic is the current IBF Jr. Bantamweight World Champion and former IBF/IBO Flyweight World Champion. Current record (30-1-1, 24KOs).

Vic Darchinyan and Ara Boyadjian in Yerevan

Norayr Mardirossyan is the leader of the Hye Riders (Motorcycle club) in Armenia. http://hyeriders.com/ He informed me that they have about fifteen members and that their activities include traveling (by bike, of course) to neighboring countries and participating in various motorcycling events, which have created reciprocal visits from cyclists from those other countries to Armenia. I suggested that a yearly event be arranged, in Armenia, whereby motorcycle enthusiasts, from all over, can participate. Norayr informed me that, in the past, they have had such rides on a small scale. With some encouragement and interest from the motorcycle riding world, a ride is scheduled to take place on or about June 15 (hopefully each year) leaving Yerevan, with a visit to Baroyr Sevag’s Museum, and on to Goris and Ghapan to the Karekin Nejteh monument, as a pilgrimage to him. (A possible three days –two night’s event).

Norayr Mardirossyan of Hye Riders Armenia and Ara Boyadjian

Brothers Jerry, Berj and Hratch Hirimyan from Istanbul were visiting Armenia by invitation of His Holiness Karekin II to attend a ceremony in honor of Catholicos Mgrdich Khrimian. They are the great grandsons of Khrimian Hairig’s brother and are very proud of their family and heritage. The brothers are musicians, composers, and singers in Turkey. They sing in several languages and they have just released a new song CD/DVD “Bu Topragin Cocuklari (the sons of this land).

During our yearly visit to Garni, (a favorite tourist spot) we met Vanoush Khanamerian. This 82 year young gentleman is the father of Armenian Dance. Several of today’s dance school teachers, both in Armenia and abroad, are his protégés. We spent a fun filled hour together during which he told us anecdotes and stories from his travel experiences. The festivities in celebration of Armenian Independence on September 21st, presented at Republic Square, ended with a dance from Vanoush Khanamerian himself and his students.

Shoushan, Mrs.and Vanoush Khanamerian, Lena , Ara

MEETINGS:

It was an honor to once again, meet H.E. Hasmig Boghosian, R.A. Minister of Culture, http://mincult.am/am/ who gave me information and updates about some of the latest cultural achievements in Armenia, particularly with regard to our youth. We, also, discussed the importance of keeping cultural monument areas clean, and educating the populace regarding littering, trash, etc. throughout Armenia. Trash and graffiti removal should be a priority, with educational institutions (starting with kindergarten schools) taking the first steps in teaching students the relevance of “Don’t Litter” and “Keep Armenia Beautiful” campaigns and utilizing the meanings of these slogans as part of the new generation’s responsibility in treating and keeping Armenia clean.. The meeting was concluded with a presentation and issuance of a letter of gratitude to me for promoting Armenia, through the “Visit Armenia, It Is Beautiful” campaign. We are hopeful that the VAIIB logo and “VisitArmenia.org” link will be incorporated in the Mincult.am site.

I find that my annual meetings with Ara Petrosyan, Deputy Minister of RA Ministry of Economy, http://mineconomy.am/am/ ,as always, are very important and fruitful. Our exchange of concerns and discussions of various points of interest that are fundamentally significant to Armenia’s prosperity and growth, whether through the tourism industry or other means, help us to work together within our own channels and abilities to either direct the issues at hand to the appropriate entities and/or help to rectify problems as expeditiously as possible. This year, we discussed problems regarding the increase of traffic within the city, keeping tourist sites clean, and specialized training of hotel and service workers. A certificate of appreciation for the “Visit Armenia, It Is Beautiful” project was issued by Mr. Petrosyan, Deputy Minister of R.A. Ministry of Economy.

Mr. Vasken Khatchikyan, Head of R.A. State Fund of Social Insurance services, originally from the Lori Marz, has been working tirelessly to introduce Akhtala as a prime tourist attraction. Near Sanahin and Haghpat, lays the fortified monastery of Akhtala, with breathtaking frescoes

.These well preserved frescos of Byzantine and Greek eras are a rarity in Armenia. Mr. Khatchikyan has a vast knowledge of historic facts of the area, and has been working hard for the past several years to make Akhtala a UNESCO historic heritage site. The roads and facilities in the area are being built and repaired. Akhtala is a definite stop for tourists to enjoy this unique area/site. During our meeting, we discussed the possibilities of promoting this Northern Gateway to Armenia to tourists throughout the world and to encourage tour companies to include the monastery and fortress of Akhtala in their tour programs/destinations.

I had a lengthy meeting with Mr. Antranik Hovanisyan, Youth Affairs Director of the Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs of the Republic of Armenia. http://youthpolicy.am/en/ He gave me details of the Youth Festival “Dialogue of Cultures-2008” held at Dzaghgatzor, Armenia. This festival was designed to help in the development of intercultural dialogue, promote diversity and to contribute in the participation of Armenia and its youth in relation to global issues.

I had several meetings with Mher Sadoyan, Director of the Armenia Tree Project (a USA based non-profit organization, which combats the deforestation of Armenia and helps tree planting projects). http://www.armeniatree.org/ We discussed the possibility of establishing several tourist locations, where tour buses can make a rest stop and tourists could voluntarily plant trees, with their own hands and a shovel, at affordable fees to help encourage and fortify Armenia’s commitment to the environment. Planting of fruit and nut bearing trees should also be considered in the tree planting project.

Avetik Afrikyan, of Hyur Service, http://www.hyurservice.com/eng/ provided me useful information and photographs to assist me in the promotion of the Visit Armenia, It Is Beautiful Project campaign and updated PSI video presentation.

Although the VAIIB project is non commercial, I make it a point to stop by the American Chamber of Commerce in Armenia http://amcham.am/ to learn about its current projects. This year I met with Ms. Diana Gaziyan, Executive Director and Mr. James G. Lykos, Senior Advisor of ACCA and explained to them the purpose and benefits of the “Visit Armenia, It Is Beautiful” project in promoting tourism to Armenia thus helping the socioeconomics of the country and its people.

This year I toured the “Beer of Yerevan” CJSC plants where Kilikia Beer and other fruit juices and products are manufactured and bottled. http://www.kilikia.am/ I met with Mr. Ashot Baghdasaryan, General Director of the company and discussed the possibility of incorporating the “Visit Armenia, It Is Beautiful” logo on labels of exported bottles and jars of its products as a public service announcement. Mr. Ashod Hovannisyan, head of marketing and export , gave me a thorough tour of the facilities equipped with modern technological machinery in an impressively clean environment. I tasted fresh pomegranate juice (with no sugars or preservatives added) and enjoyed a glass of Kilikia Beer right from the brewery. Delicious !

Sebouh Baghdoian from Vienna, a devoted advocate and a close friend of the “Visit Armenia, It Is Beautiful” project in Europe, was in Armenia, doing some work at Kegharkounik Marz. We met several times and exchanged ideas on how to maximize our efforts in further promoting the “Visit Armenia, It Is Beautiful” campaign. (All ideas and suggestion are always welcome. Please feel free to send an email).

NEWLY VISITED SIGHTS/LOCATIONS:

Having been to Armenia every year (sometimes twice a year) since 1999, and having been to many different regions, cities, villages, we decided to visit different locations this year. Visiting Goris, Ghapan (aka Kapan) and Meghri was one of the highlights of our trip this year. Though we had been to Goris several times before, we had never traveled farther than Goris to the southern parts of Armenia. Mr. Artin Manoukian, of the Glendale-Ghapan sister city association (in Glendale, CA), http://www.glendale-ghapan.org/ put me in contact with the sister city organization’s representative, Armenag Stepanian, in Ghapan. After a six hour drive from Yerevan, with a few rest stops on the way, we received a warm welcome from Armenag and settled into Darist Hotel, in the center of town (an older building with clean, renovated rooms with hot/cold running water; and a restaurant with an outdoor terrace overlooking the river) Ghapan is one of the rare cities in the world where two different rivers (Voghchi and Vachagan) flow through it. We visited Ghapan’s City Hall and were received by Hon. Armen Karapetyan, Mayor of Ghapan. We discussed issues of interest to increase tourism to the area. The Syunik region can be hikers, bikers, and horse back riders paradise as well for those looking for a relaxing place with clean mountain air away from the stress of a modern hustling environment.

Hon. Armen Karapetyan and Ara

Mr. Karapetyan presented me a PSI booklet “Visit Kapan – The fortress of Lernahaystan”. A well prepared publication with excellent pictures and information about Syunik and Ghapan. We continued on to Meghri (known for its pomegranate and fig trees) through a new mountainous highway, a two hour ride through winding roads and beautiful forests, mountains, ridges and valleys. As we started the descent, the Arax River was shining, from below, like a diamond. As we approached the border with Iran, we had a wonderful view of the river flowing with majestic serenity. We were greeted with warm hospitality by a local Meghri family, and enjoyed fresh fruits, milk and honey. Our return to Ghapan was via the old winding road (a faster route). Nona, a reporter of Ghapan’s local TV station, Khoustoup TV, conducted an interview with me, asking several questions about my visit, and the VAIIB campaign. I, also, stressed the importance of educating the public, particularly children to keep their city, rivers and all tourist attractions clean and free of debris and to continue their education, stay in their hometowns and implement what they learn in the advancement of their cities.                                                                     

Ara, Lena, Shoushan, Armenag

On September 16, 1976 , the Mousa Ler (Mousa Dagh)   http://www.mousaler.com/ monument was erected across the Zvartnotz airport (near the city of Etchmiadzin) in honor of the heroic people of Mousa Dagh, (known for the 40 days the villagers successfully defended their village).                                                                            

It has been a tradition that on the third Sunday of September, a celebration takes place at the sight of the monument which resembles a fortress, symbolizing the heroism and solidarity of the Mousa Dagh people. The celebration includes Prayers, traditional “Harissa” (cracked wheat and meat porridge), traditional music (Zourna-Drums,) patriotic songs and dances.                                                                                                           

Thousands of Armenians attend this unique event which is open to the public at no charge. I was lucky to participate in this year’s ceremonies and enjoyed talking to some of the locals – Mousa Ler’s proud people.

This time during our visit to Garni, we took a jeep ride down to the Tzor. The scenery, raging river, unusual rock formations and majestic peaks were awe inspiring. This is an ideal place for hikers interested in at least a seven hour trail. Plan to spend the night, outdoors in a tent of course. It is strongly suggested that the hike is organized through the appropriate Garni representatives.                                         

We visited the village of Markara, at Armenia’s border with Turkey, with beautiful and close up views of Mount Ararat from its northern side.

RE-VISITS:

We also went to Gavar and visited the Khatchkars of Noratus Cemetery, after making a stop at Hayravank overlooking Lake Sevan. . Dzaghgatzor, the popular sports and youth getaway in Armenia was another return trip we made. Not only, Armenia’s residents enjoy and reap the benefits of this area, various youth organizations from throughout the world gather at this locality for planned summer activities and stays. Winter skiing and other snow sports are very popular with available new ski lifts.

We took a minibus tour, from a local tour operator, to Mt. Arakadz with a photo stop at the Alphabet monument at the skirts of the mountain. We continued up Mt. Arakadz to the fortress of Ampert as well as Degher where we stopped in at St. Asdvadzadzin Church.The panoramic view of Puragan from atop the mountain, including the observatory is breathtaking.                                                                                                       

MISC/INFORMATION:

In addition to the nightly two hour water fountain music/water show at the Republic Square on August 23rd, there was an open air concert to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. Several singers and dance groups participated. Thousands of people attended this event.

The 2008 Olympic medal winners were honored in an open air celebration held on August 26 at the Republic Square. The inspiring and congratulatory speech of President Serge Sarkisyan was followed by a “Star” filled concert wherein entertainers such as Aida Sarikisian, Shoushan Bedrosian, Andre, Haigo (2007 Eurovision participant) and Sirousho’s (Quele Quele – 2008 Eurovision) voices pleasantly echoed throughout the night. The evening ended with fireworks spectacular.

On September 28, 2008 H.H. Catholicos Karekin II blessed the “Sourp Muron”, a Ceremony that takes place every seven years, when thousands of pilgrims from throughout the world come to Etchmiadzin for this holy event wherein this blessed oil is prepared and passed throughout the Armenian churches worldwide.

The Hamazkayin “Knar” dance group from Lebanon was visiting Armenia. Leader Felix Haroutyounyan explained, in a TV interview, the importance of Armenian culture, through dance, music and all means possible throughout the Diaspora as well as bringing these talents home to Armenia.

Garen Kocharian designed and prepared a 30 second Public Service Information video with the “Visit Armenia, It Is Beautiful” logo which included photos of various activities such as swimming, skiing, mountain climbing, hiking, food and entertainment and other fun photos. (The sounds of Ara Gevorkian bring further enjoyment to the video).

I learned about a youth organization called “Miasin” http://miasin.am/ and saw them in action on one occasion. Approximately one hundred young students (mostly girls), wearing white T-shirts had organized a peaceful demonstrations walking on Apovian Boulevard, with chants and banners on an anti-smoking campaign. I understand that some of their demonstrations also deal with corruption issues. However, the one which most interested me was the march to “Keep Yerevan Clean”

I made several hotel inspections to familiarize and update myself with new accommodations and offered services. Most established facilities have websites that are to par with their respective accommodations. During the last week of September, hotels in Yerevan were sold out, due to the normal tourist season, business meetings and various conventions/seminars held in Yerevan.This is always good news.

Until my next visit, I leave you with thoughts of Armenia, and to make a decision to “Visit Armenia, It Is Beautiful”.

 

 

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